Key point: America would win, but hundreds of thousands would die.
The Islamic State of Iran was born in enmity toward the United States. Led by the fiery cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, revolutionary leaders animated crows in Iran by lambasting “Great Satan” for any number of crimes, both real and imagined.
It didn’t take long for this animosity to turn kinetic. As the Iran-Iraq War intensified throughout 1984, the two combatants began targeting each other’s oil shipments as a way to gain military advantage. According to Global Security, “Seventy-one merchant ships were attacked in 1984 alone, compared with forty-eight in the first three years of the [Iran-Iraq] war.”
This drew the ire of global powers, none more so than the United States, who sent in a naval task force to escort oil tankers and merchant ships through the Persian Gulf. This led the U.S. and Iran to exchange fire on a number of occasions. Not surprisingly, the U.S. came out on top in most of these exchanges.
This helped cement the United States as public enemy number one in the minds of many Iranian leaders, including those in the military. Since that time, Iran has sought to develop asymmetric military capabilities to offset America’s insurmountable conventional superiority. Five U.S. weapons should be foremost in their minds.
When Iranian aircraft began targeting U.S. drones conducting surveillance over Iran in 2013, Washington responding by providing the UAVs with High Value Air Asset Escorts. These escorts often took the form of the F-22 Raptor.
And for good reason, as Iran’s American-made F-4 Phantom fighters are no match for the U.S. fifth generation fighter. In fact, the F-22 pilots frequently toyed with their Iranian counterparts. As the Air Force Chief of Staff explained of one incident:
He [the Raptor pilot] flew under their aircraft [the F-4s] to check out their weapons load without them knowing that he was there, and then pulled up on their left wing and then called them and said ‘you really ought to go home.’
In the event of an armed conflict with Iran, the single-seat, twin-engine F-22 would be integral in the opening minutes as the U.S. sought to gain air superiority over Iranian skies. Fortunately, this is the exact type of mission for which the F-22 was built. Iran’s military would have little effective recourse against the F-22.
After helping the U.S. gain air superiority, the F-22 could be put to use for any number of different missions, including attacking ground targets, electronic warfare and collecting signals intelligence. It’s no wonder that when tensions heat up with Iran, the U.S. deploys additional F-22s to air bases in the Persian Gulf.
B-2 Stealth Bomber:
No threat from Iran terrifies the United States more than its burgeoning nuclear program. It is for this reason that every American president has said that when it comes to Iran’s nuclear program, all options remain on the table.
Should the U.S. have to resort to the military option against Iran’s nuclear program, the B-2 stealth bomber would figure prominently in the operations. One of Iran’s best defenses is its massive and unforgiving geography. The country is three times larger than Iraq and roughly equivalent to the size of all of Western Europe. Most of its major nuclear facilities, as well as some of its important military sites, are located deep inside the country. Some of these are also located near important cities, such as the Fordow nuclear enrichment plant that is located near the important religious city of Qom.
This is what makes the B-2 stealth bomber so key to any American attack on Iran’s nuclear program. As Northrop Grumman, who makes the plane, explains, the B-2 is “a key component of the nation’s long-range strike arsenal, and one of the most survivable aircraft in the world.” Not only can it penetrate heavily defended areas, and elude sophisticated anti-air defense systems, but it boasts incredible range with the ability to fly “6,000 nautical miles unrefueled and 10,000 nautical miles with just one aerial refueling.”
The B-2 stealth bomber can also carry an extensive payload, and deliver precision strikes, both of which would be necessary to ensure the U.S. destroyed the nuclear facilities in as few waves of attacks as possible. As Northrup again explains, each B-2 can “carry more than 20 tons of conventional and nuclear ordnance and deliver it precisely under any weather conditions.”
GBU-57A/B Massive Ordnance Penetrator:
The B-2 bomber is also crucial to a U.S. strike against Iran’s nuclear program in another regard. Namely, it is the only aircraft capable of carrying the Air Force’s GBU-57A/B Massive Ordnance Penetrator.
While the U.S. has sought to deny the operational concept formerly known as Air-Sea Battle was directed at China, it has been less coy about the purpose of the massive bunker-buster. If the U.S. decided to attack Iran’s nuclear program, it would almost certainly use the MOP to destroy Iran’s Fordow nuclear enrichment site, which is buried deep inside a mountain.
At 30,000-pounds (13,600-kilograms), 31.5 inches in diameter and 20.5 feet long, the Boeing-made MOP is around six times the size of the next biggest bunker-buster in the U.S. or Israeli arsenals.
The GBU-57A/B MOP project began as early as 2004, and picked up steam under DARPA’s direction in the years that followed. Testing began under DARPA in 2008, and in February 2010, the program was transferred to the Air Force. In 2012, the Air Force ordered upgrades to the MOP, and began conducting tests of the upgraded bomb in 2013.
The MOP reportedly packs some “5,300 pounds of explosive material and will deliver more than 10 times the explosive power of its predecessor, the BLU-109.” This allows it to burrow through some 60 feet of reinforced concrete, and explode 200 feet underground, allowing it to destroy even the most hard-to-reach targets underneath the earth.
Amphibious Combat Vehicle:
Beyond nuclear weapons, Iran threatens the U.S. with its anti-access/area-denial capabilities. Like China, anti-ship missiles figure prominently into Iran’s A2/AD strategy. Unlike China, Iran has a less sophisticated arsenal of medium-range and over-the-horizon precision-guided missiles.
To compensate, Iran would need to rely on its geographical advantages to execute any A2/AD strategy in the Persian Gulf against the United States. Fortunately for Tehran, Iran has by far the largest coastline inside the Strait of Hormuz at some 1,356 miles (to go with 480 kilometers of Arabian Sea coastline property). Moreover, as Robert Kaplan has pointed out, geographical features like “bays, inlets, coves and islands” along Iran’s coastline are excellent for concealing weapon systems at close range to U.S. naval assets operating in the Persian Gulf.
As such, in the event on an Iranian-U.S. conflict in the Persian Gulf—such as Iran trying to shut down the Strait of Hormuz—the U.S. might find it necessary to seize some of Iran’s coastal property, including the three Persian Gulf islands of Abu Musa and Greater and Lesser Tunb. This will require the U.S. to execute amphibious landings, which have become increasingly difficult in light of the proliferation of precision-guided munitions.
Fortunately, the U.S. Marine Corps has just the answer in the form of the Amphibious Combat Vehicle (ACV) 1.1. Much about the ACV 1.1 is still unknown, but the original Request for Information in 2011 called for a vehicle that could “self-deploy from amphibious shipping and deliver a reinforced Marine infantry squad (17 Marines) from a launch distance at or beyond 12 miles with a speed of not less than 8 knots.” Crucially for the current context, the Marines demanded that the vehicle must be “able to protect against direct and indirect fire and mines and improvised explosive device (IED) threats.”
Since then, the Marines have signaled they are scaling back some of the ACV 1.1 requirements primarily because of cost, and the program has come under considerable criticism internally. Furthermore, for the time being, the Marines may rely more on an upgraded version of the current AAV-7. A version of the ACV 1.1 is still in the works, which is expected to reach initial operating capability around 2020. This will be followed by an even more formidable ACV 2.0 when the available technology reaches envisioned needs. None of this bodes well for Iran.
While still in the early part of their development, military laser systems are quickly becoming a reality. According to various news reports, recent tests of the Navy’s Laser Weapons System [LaWS], “surpassed their expectations in how quickly and effectively it tracked and destroyed ever more difficult targets.”
This is bad news for Iran and its A2/AD strategy. One of Tehran’s most important A2/AD capabilities is the use of massive fleets of lightly armed speedboats to “swarm” American naval vessels operating in the Persian Gulf. In addition, Iran has also invested heavily in Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). While these will be utilized for multiple ends, there is good reason to think Iran may use some of them to swarm U.S. platforms.
In both cases, Iran seeks to use the many and cheap to overcome the few and expensive. That is, swarming seeks to use basic arithmetic to overwhelm America’s superior military systems. To do this successfully, swarming must mirror missiles in being overwhelmingly cheaper to use offensively than to defend against.